Last night at the Sundance Film Festival, Joseph Gordon-Levitt premiered the first three episodes of his innovative new variety show, HitRecord on TV, featuring short films, skits, songs, animations, live performances and stories that were crowd-sourced from hundreds of collaborators. But you could be forgiven for thinking that he could do it all himself: Not only does the star of Looper and (500) Days of Summer host the show with sunny, dapper, Fallonesque optimism, he plays piano and drums, tap-dances a musical number with Tony Danza, writes and sings song lyrics, is abducted by an alien Carla Gugino, interviews John Waters and does a backflip. At the boozy afterparty, he even played piano and sang a song with a performer from Finland, Peppina, who he had discovered online.
Premiering tonight on Pivot TV, HitRecord on TV builds on the online, collaborative community that Gordon-Levitt has been developing since he founded a scrappy little site in 2005. Over the years, it has expanded dramatically from a DIY venue for his own short film experiments into a thriving online community of about 300,000 members with real-world results: oodles of online films and songs, plus three hardback volumes of Tiny Stories anthologies and music collections available in the HitRecord.org store. At Sundance, he offered up the first three episodes, shouting, "This is the Netflix experience: The binge watch!"
Like a mashup of the open-source coding movement and old-fashioned variety shows, the nine-episode series builds on the next-gen, YouTube-driven innovation of projects like YouTube Symphony Orchestra, LittleBigPlanet, the Beastie Boys’ fan-shot Awesome, I Fuckin’ Shot That! and 99%: The Occupy Wall Street Documentary. For each episode, Gordon-Levitt puts out a call for a theme – the first three are "One," "Fantasy" and "Trash" – and then poses specific questions. Gordon-Levitt calls in a few celebrity friends to help, from Elle Fanning, who acts out the story of a woman with failing vision, to John Waters, who talks about trash culture, and his Don Jon co-star Tony Danza. But the user-generated art is the focus.
HitRecord users with names like SaintMaker, KarlieJ, Danikins, and Fajigajga contribute new spins on old fairy tales, odd animations and their own songs. Sometimes, Gordon-Levitt and his team will pick lyrics from one, a hook from another and a chorus from yet another – and then put out a call for musicians and fill out a whole orchestra pit of instrumentals recorded in a hundred different bedrooms. For the punk video "Front Lawn Freak," dozens of users shoot themselves freaking on front lawns. For the lovely animated short Beastly Beauty, the paper-cut animation is altogether more refined. Throughout the episodes, footage ranges from grainy smartphone resolution to professional high-definition; unlike talent shows like The X Factor, the show doesn’t try to push unknown talents toward ever-more glossy, Pepsi-ad friendly extremes. The amateurishness is essential to the show’s charm – and part of what makes the idea of contributing to the show seem so accessible. In all variety shows, some acts are more exciting than others, but, as a proof of concept, the show feels enormously consistent, and hints at Gordon-Levitt’s greater aspirations.
There will be breakthrough actors and breakout directors at this year’s Sundance – but Gordon-Levitt has already been there, done that. After becoming a sitcom child star on 3rd Rock from the Sun, he reinvented himself at Sundance as a teenage hustler in Greg Araki’s Mysterious Skin in 2004, and then again as a stylized high-school detective in Rian Johnson’s debut, Brick, in 2005. Last year at Sundance, he made his directorial debut with the porn-farce Don Jon. But now Gordon-Levitt is after something altogether more ambitious– and it isn’t just being a TV showrunner.
In his Sundance introduction, he spoke respectfully about the influence Robert Redford’s festival has had on HitRecord, noting that the project’s first public event was in the New Frontiers gallery in front of just 99 people, when the site had a userbase of just a few hundred members. "In our wildest dreams," he said, "we hope that decades from now, we’ll be nurturing artists like Sundance has nurtured us."
After the screening, Gordon-Levitt said HitRecord, in the future, could produce "plenty of TV shows, features, documentaries, and bigger and live events." But he didn’t stop there. He said he hoped that HitRecord could even become his generation’s Dreamworks: "I think we could get there eventually. I think the future is bright."
Most actors entering the prime of their leading-man careers would not devote so much time to such an outlandish experiment. But at the post-screening Q&A, it became more clear why the actor is so driven to create a project for people "who just love making things and want to do it together." He was asked a question about his brother, who co-founded the site, and almost immediately teared up. His brother, who went by the name Burning Dan and died at the age of 36, "wanted people to try something they didn’t think they could do," Gordon-Levitt said. "If someone wanted to write but didn’t think they could show it to somebody else, if somebody sang but didn’t want anyone to hear it, he wanted people to have a place to do it."
His voice breaking, tears in his eyes, Gordon-Levitt struggled to get the words out. But he said he thought of his brother particularly when he had to make tough choices and turn down submissions from members of the HitRecord community. "We try to do it with such warmth and encouragement," he said, voice breaking so much he had to pause to compose himself, "because that’s what he always did, more than I."
He took a breath, then said, "He would be so fucking happy to see all you guys here."